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My newly qualified Private Pilot blog friend Flying Ninja told me recently that his experience training for his PPL was a mixture of fantastic highs and serious lows. I’ve come today – in a good way! – to realise the truth of his words.
Today’s flight training – 2 lessons, in spite of crappy weather – was a just a sweet little bit of awesome.
On the negative side, today’s pre-solo checkride did not happen. The weather has been dodgy for 3 or 4 days now (and is expected to remain so until at least Tuesday next week). Today was broken cloud with bottoms of 2000 to 2500 feet, which in itself would not have ruled out a possible solo, but there was just enough crosswind – about 10 knots – for my instructors to rule it out for today. I’d more or less expected weather to step in today, so I wasn’t that perturbed. The weather will improve, John thinks I’m ready to solo and it’s just a matter of finding the right day (hopefully next week). Fortunately, there’s still a heap of other things we can knock off while waiting for the solo, including – started today, as I’ll relate – basic instrument flying.
Right now I’m pretty sanguine about the solo situation. I’m flying nearly every day at the moment, hopefully – surely! – an opportunity will arise in the next few days?
On the hugely positive side, today was a day where almost everything just worked out well – no, what I should say is, I did almost everything well. So much so that after today’s 2nd lesson, not only did I feel a huge surge of satisfaction and confidence, but my instructor clearly did too. Afterwards in the clubhouse he came over to me expressly to shake my hand and express how well I’d done today.
Praise indeed, and music to my ears. John’s not a hard man, but he is a professional flying instructor and he wants me to learn to a high standard – as he said yesterday, not just to learn to fly, but to learn to be a pilot. He is not miserly with praise, but nor is he lavish with it, so when you get some, you know you’ve done well. So after today, details of which I’ll relate below, I felt an injection of confidence that, in addition to John’s assessment, makes me personally feel ready for my solo.
At the end of yesterday, I did not feel ready to solo. Almost, but not quite. Today, I feel ready.
So. Today I was back in November Foxtrot Romeo (NFR), in which (coincidentally) I did my first hour on circuits. I feel so fond of NFR after today that I felt bound to photograph her this afternoon when I closed her out.
This morning was quite dark, with cloud bottoms at 2100 feet, no good for the 2nd lesson on stalls that we still want to get done in the training area but still perfectly OK for circuits. With the maxim that “you can never do enough circuits”, we hit the runup bay for runway 11 right and ran through our run-up and pre-flight checks, only to be informed by the tower that there would be a 10-minute delay and we were advised to position ourselves within sight of the tower and shut down. Which we did. For no clear reason, as the circuit only appeared to have 2 or 3 aircraft in it at the time, but after 10 minutes a wave from the tower got us back onto the radio, to hear that the aircraft ahead of us was cleared for the circuit and we were cleared for startup. Another few minutes and we were lining up and away.
Unfortunately the crosswind this morning was not strong enough to qualify technically as a crosswind lesson, but it was enough that on takeoff and landing I had to crab the nose of the aircraft a good 10 degrees to my right to maintain course and not get blown over onto runway 11 centre. Particularly for my landings, this was a good challenge, as I dealt with it much better than one of my earlier circuit lessons which entailed mild crosswind. So score a few marks for that.
Not much else remarkable about the lesson itself. 5 or 6 circuits – with plenty of traffic, requiring me to slow down even from late upwind and onto my crosswind and downwind legs. But 2 of my landings scored a “7.5/10” from John – by far the best so far – and they felt fantastic. Alignment lovely all the way down. Sufficient use of pedal to stay in line (though I could do more still). Good control of airspeed around 70 knots right over the airport fence and down to 65 then 60 on the runway threshold. And that lovely chirp sound as the tires gently kiss the runway – I got them! Several times! It wasn’t just chance, my best landings are just getting better.
John remarked afterwards that he’d actually enjoyed that lesson. Lovely feedback. I’m sure I will do many poorer landings in my flying career, but I now can truly say and claim that I’m getting that final landing flare sorted out.
Basic Instrument Flying
With no chance of a solo checkride this afternoon, John decided – with wholehearted endorsement from me – that we’ll plough ahead with other lessons that we can do straight away while we wait to get the first solo done. So, today I had my first experience of instrument flying. And I’m happy to say that – by either luck or some natural skill, or a bit of both – I did very well indeed.
After 10 hours on the circuits it was nice to get on a different runway (11 left for arrivals/departures) and out into the training area. Taking off and turning left, we made for Parramatta while climbing to 1500 feet. While we were doing this, John directed me to keep my eyes on my cockpit instruments to get an initial “feel” for flying the aircraft on instruments only. My primary reference was my attitude indicator (angle of the aircraft’s nose above or below the horizon) with constant reference also to airspeed indicator and altimeter, and also to my other instruments and my tachometer.
After five minutes of this, out came the hood! This slips over your head and is like a visor that blocks your view straight outside but lets you look at your instruments. And for the next 40 minutes I wore that hood and flew NFR entirely by reference to my flight instruments, following John’s directions to climb, descend, turn, maintain directed headings and on 3 occasions do a 180-degree level turn.
It sounds a bit scary, perhaps, but I honestly didn’t feel that. (Though I’m sure that if I found myself in real IMC – instrument meteorological conditions – the fear would be equally real). It was more of a very enjoyable and interesting challenge. And according to John afterwards, I handled it very well. (Perhaps those hundreds of hours on Microsoft Flight Simulator had to count for something!)
Apparently during the Private Pilot License training you must have 2 hours of “Basic Instrument Flying”. This, apparently, is intended to try to give you some sort of fighting chance of surviving if you ever find yourself trapped in real IMC conditions – though as a VFR pilot this should theoretically never happen. Apparently the statistics say that non-instrument rated pilots survive for an average of just 90 seconds (or 147 seconds according to a CASA publication I saw last year) in cloud. So it’s a pretty serious deal. At the very least, it’s intended to set you up to attempt to fly out of cloud by being able to execute a level 180-degree turn and go back the way you came.
My most interesting recollection of today’s lesson is:
Everything you read about instrument flying is true. Your senses can have you absolutely convinced that you’re flying straight and level when in fact you’re in a 10 degree (or worse) bank. As happened to me today. Or when you’re in a far more dangerous flight attitude. So the discipline is simple, if extremely challenging, as I can now relate from personal experience: you have to ignore what your inner ear tells you and trust and fly to your instruments.
On the way back I flew “blind” as far as Warwick Farm Racecourse, then took off the hood and executed an extremely satisfying flapless landing on runway 11 left – of similar quality to my best landings from this morning – followed by 2 left-hand circuits with similar results. And I finally got the picture of what to do on my landing rolls.
On the landing roll, don’t apply the brakes straight away! Use your feet to align the nose of the aircraft with the runway centreline, and then start to smoothly apply brake after everything’s under control. Don’t take an early exit off the runway if you’re still rolling too fast, be patient and take the next one.
I don’t exactly know what kind of mental block I had around this one – subconsciously I was obviously feeling the need to throw out the anchor as soon as the aircraft was on the ground after landing. But funnily enough I needed to learn this rather obvious but of landing technique all over again. I don’t think I’ll forget it this time.
So all in all, an enormous amount of achievement, satisfaction and positive learning coming out of today. I may not have soloed, but I’m ready for it when it happens, and I’ve proven to myself that I can land like a real pilot. Maybe I’ll become one yet.